Alabama fans are greeted with a familiar sight as kickoff nears for a football game in Bryant-Denny Stadium. It’s as common as seeing the Million Dollar Band on the field or the pre-game “Tradition” video.
Only this one isn’t so inspiring.
The upper deck student section, where students are sent once the lower bowl has reached capacity, is never filled and has become an eyesore for many fans. It’s a blemish on what some say would otherwise be the most spectacular sight in college football – 101,000-plus fans packed into one stadium to watch a football game.
The student section has never filled up completely, or even come close, according to information received from The University of Alabama under an open-records request.
Alabama’s season opener against San Jose State in 2010 drew the most students since 2008, when the University started using ACT Cards for football tickets and the earliest that data was made available. Of the 17,000 seats given to students, only 13,638 were filled for the game. That means 3,362 tickets went unused, and the section was just over 80 percent capacity.
And only 69.4 percent of student tickets were used in 2012, the lowest rate since 2009.
Western Carolina was the least-attended game by students in 2012 and since 2008, with just 5,995 students showing up. Auburn was the second-least with 10,851. The highest-attended game of the season was Ole Miss (13,486) followed by Mississippi State (13,483) and the Tide’s home opener against Western Kentucky (13,459). Alabama’s only loss of the season to Texas A&M was viewed by 13,385 students, while 11,959 attended the Tide’s game against Florida Atlantic.
The second-highest attended game by students since 2008 was Arkansas in 2011 (13,564), followed by Penn State in 2010 (13,522).
The “Game of the Century” between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 LSU on Nov. 5, 2011 drew just 12,646 students.
Bryant-Denny expanded from 92,012 to 101,821 seats for the 2010 season. Student seating was increased from 15,000 seats to 17,000 and all tickets are sold before the season, said Doug Walker, associate athletics director for media relations.
Pre-expansion, the most-attended game was the 2009 season opener against Florida International (11,929), where capactiy reached just 79.5 percent. More students saw that game than Alabama’s last-second victory against Tennessee that season (11,315), Julio Jones’ late touchdown to beat LSU later in the year (11,481) or the Homecoming game against South Carolina (11,339).
No game in 2008 cracked the 11,000-mark, including the season opener against Tulane (10,929) or Alabama’s 36-0 win over Auburn (10,481), which broke a six-year losing streak to the Tide’s cross-state rival.
Walker said the University has not had discussions about reducing the number of tickets given to students and that the lower bowl does not let in more students than there are seats.
“Alabama could play the Steelers in the Super Bowl at Bryant-Denny Stadium and the upper deck of the student section wouldn’t fill up,” said Tommy Deas, sports editor of the Tuscaloosa News. “There are certainly enthusiastic football fans among the student body at Alabama. But there’s not as many of them as there are tickets, apparently.”
The lack of attendance is part of a general trend of apathy among UA students, which also includes leaving early during blowout games. For a school whose victories have come at an average margin of 31 points per game, it’s easy to see why students could become lethargic toward sitting through a blowout game.
Still, a half-empty student section is not exactly aesthetically pleasing for outsiders, Deas said.
“I thought for awhile that maybe the library was closing early so they were rushing to go get their studying in, but I’ve since decided that was not the case,” he said. “You hear a different excuse every week. People were saying that [there weren’t enough exciting home games], and then undefeated Mississippi State comes in and the upper deck’s about half-filled or two-thirds-filled.”
But it was worse before the stadium expanded. In 2009, the year before Alabama won its first national championship under head coach Nick Saban, just 68.4 percent of student tickets were used. A mere 63 percent went used in 2008.
Deas said entitlement plays a key role in the lack of enthusiasm he’s seen from students.
“Students think that just because they get tickets, they don’t have to use them,” he said. “I just don’t understand that when you go to a school with a program like Alabama football – the program is, right now, the best in the country. Yet the only people that seem to be apathetic about it are the people that attend school there.”
However, plenty of students feel otherwise. Katie Norris, a senior majoring in human development, has been an Alabama fan all of her life and can’t imagine doing anything but going to every game and staying the entire time.
“That is the way I was raised,” she said. “I never left a game with my family, so I will never leave a game as a student. I lived through the Shula years with my parents, and my dad would never let us leave the game, even when we were getting demolished. It was so important that we stayed the entire game to him, and I respected that.”
The lack of attendance is especially troubling for fans and alumni that are on long season ticket waiting lists.
“It really hurts to see empty sections of the stadium especially when the demand is so high,” said Christopher Andrews, a lifelong fan that did not attend Alabama, but has been on a waiting list since 2006. “And for me personally, knowing I will probably be buying from ticket brokers for the next decade.”
Some of them feel the seats could be allotted to fans who have waited years for tickets, rather than students who decide not to show up at all.
“I know myself and plenty of other alumni that are willing and able to pay the season ticket prices – if only we had the option of purchasing the tickets,” said Robby Sanford, who graduated from the University in 2008 and said he has been on a waiting list to purchase tickets since. “To know that we would purchase the tickets and actually attend the games – it’s infuriating to see empty sections because others simply chose not to sit there.”
Some students and other fans feel there should be harsher penalties for those who don’t go, including removing some seats until there is an equilibrium between students who regularly attend games and seats in the stadium.
Others suggested students be required to swipe their ACT Card when they leave the stadium, and be given penalty points if they leave before the end of the third quarter.
“In my opinion if you leave a game early, then you have no right to go to the SEC championship game or the national championship game,” Norris said. “Leave those tickets to those of us who actually support the team throughout the entire season.”
Students have the option to donate tickets to a donation pool or transfer them to another student. There is a half point penalty for students who do not do so by a certain time and a 1.5 point penalty for those that do not use their ticket by halftime. Students with three or more points are ineligible to buy postseason tickets as well as tickets for the following season.